Is there another way to talk about porn?

Sat near the front of a packed auditorium in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the women behind me are booing, jeering and, on occasion, heckling.

Most of their taunts were directed at Martin Daubney, former editor of lads’ mag Loaded, who was talking part in a discussion on porn, along with my good friend Chitra Nagarajan (of Black Feminists) and anti-porn activist and academic Julia Long. Chairing the controversial debate was Helena Kennedy QC. 

One of the comments that promoted booing in the audience was Daubney’s assertion, ’All the women that appeared in all the men’s mag were paid well, they wanted to do it. Our big cover girls got paid more than I did. These weren’t victims.’ Of course, statements like this are guaranteed to wind up some feminists if they are among those ideologically opposed to porn.

Despite beginning with that justification of Loaded – and arguing that lad’s mags were never porn, Daubney went on to admit that over the years they have become more porn-like. A magazine today would be too hardcore to sell on the ‘middle shelf’ five years ago.

And then Daubney proceeded to explain how his views changed once he had a daughter. When he was asked if he’d be happy for his own daughter to appear in the pages of his magazine, he admitted: ’I felt duty bound to say “yeah, yeah”, but I was lying. When I became a father I looked differently at this magazine sector.’

He decided to leave men’s magazines three years ago, as a direct result, he says.

Perhaps this isn’t a wholehearted transformation – Daubney now writes for The Sun and the Daily Mail, and he spoke quite dismissively particularly in response to one question about banning Page 3, which he called a ‘side issue’. (Incidentally, Page 3 is nowhere near the top of my agenda for change, so I can’t entirely disagree, but his manner was a tad rude.)

Daubney seemed to savour the booing and heckling, but some of the audience members who also had their contributions jeered at as well, might have not enjoyed the experience as much. Even though Kennedy told us that in years passed she’s chaired debates on porn that have seemed to be on the edge of actual violence, I thought this was dispiriting.

As a counterpoint, however, it’s also interesting to look at what happened when Chitra spoke. Based on an informal survey of members of Black Feminists, she gave some insights into why black women are not generally even involved in or invited to these debates. She talked about the racism that crops up in porn; listing common tropes and stereotypes, and calling for a more nuanced discussion. I’m not going to even attempt to summarise her many points – hopefully her speech will go on the Black Feminists’ blog soon.

Her points were well made – but then systematically ignored by the other speakers and the audience. Which is a shame because in all the many debates on porn I’ve heard, I think this is the first to address these topics. Although I am admittedly biased, I have to say I found hers the most interesting contribution from the panel, as it provided some nuance. No-one even really responded to or engaged with her points. 

She was barely called upon to participate in the discussion, which rotated through some well-trodden arguments: should porn be banned, or, on the other hand, can porn be feminist. Is porn always abusive.

The temptation seems to be to rehearse the same arguments again and again. People take sides, reach for their talking points (in the case of Daubney, even when he seemed no longer to fully believe them himself!), and dismiss the views of the ‘opposition’. As those who were in the room experienced, often this dismissal can be very loud indeed.

There were some genuine exceptions in the audience: one woman entertainingly spoke about her nostalgia for the porn of the 1970s and 1980s, with its pubic hair; she’s tried anal sex a couple of times, she informed us, but didn’t like it much. Another woman, who works at a sexual health clinic, spoke about the affect on teenage boys who become desensitised to porn to the point of experiencing erectile dysfunction at only 16. One woman spoke about her experiences making feminist porn. About the effect of porn on young people’s ability to function in relationships. One mother of a teenage girl noted that, yes, teenage boys today have access to a lot of internet porn and it’s much more hardcore than before. But in other respects, those teenage boys seemed more sensitive and to like women more than teenage boys did when she was young.

Can we learn to listen to each other more, and talk less? What room have we left for people changing their mind. For dialogue? For a more nuanced conversation?

I think the level of heckling is actually linked to Chitra’s unsuccessful attempt to move the conversation on. 

We need to allow for a genuine dialogue. Dialogue doesn’t involve talking over each other. But it should allow us to ask some different, perhaps more nuanced questions. Or we will be stuck forever in this loop.

Listen to Pornography: A Women Of The World Festival debate:

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Too nice for self defence? No you’re not

Have you ever been followed home? Have you ever been shouted at on the street? Attacked? Raped?

I would have to say yes to some of these questions, and so would many women reading this, as the statistics show*. In all these cases, what happens is always the aggressor’s fault. That, I hope, goes without saying. There is no secret key which victims can turn to avoid these things happening.

Today’s session on self defence at the Women of the World festival was, however, a revelation.

It was led by Debi Steven – if you saw her walking down the street, the shortish South African might seem unassuming. You would be wrong – she’s an experienced martial artist, and fluent in what she calls ‘the dance of pain’. She runs an organisation called Premier Self-Defence in London. As it quickly turns out, that’s very apt – many of her techniques are about seeming unthreatening at first, but being able to tap into aggression and violence if necessary.

She asks us near to the start of the session, ‘Could you pick a brick up and smash it into another human’s face?’ Some in the audience are visibly shocked.

Most of the attendees of this session are younger women – that is no surprise. Even though women of all ages are harassed and attacked on the street and in their own home, there is a cluster of awfulness that young women tend to experience more, mostly from men. (Although, Steven says, it’s not impossible that you might be attacked on the streets by a teenage girl or a woman.)

Steven says that her aim is to ‘teach nice people to have no respect and go flat out’ – obviously, only in the worst scenario, if you can’t escape!

She has a number of practical tips: trust your intuition, if a situation feels threatening, it probably is so get away.

In a threatening confrontation on the street, don’t be confrontational back, don’t issue a command like ’go away’ – stroke the ego of the aggressor instead. If someone comes at you saying, ‘you looking at me?’, rather than say no, you might pretend you thought you recognised them from some realistic situation, like, for example, the gym. Say anything to get away and de-escalate the situation.

We ‘get to’ experience the trainers getting in our face, shouting at us, trying to intimidate us – it was actually quite scary, even though we knew it was an act.

Then we move on to a physical demonstration: as in trying out Debi’s defence techniques on four male volunteers. We do not, as a whole, really put much welly into, for example, slapping the volunteers on their carotid artery.

By the time we’ve worked through slapping, kicking, elbowing and screaming, however, it has changed. There’s no ladylike holding back – we are, as a group, unrecognisable. Seeing an elegantly dressed woman enthusiastically kneeing one of the trainers (he was holding a padded block!), I feel a little bit liberated. And that’s only after a taster session – the usual classes are about four hours long.

Feminists, many of us, are pretty pacifist. Women, all of us, are socialised to think of ourselves as weak and men as overwhelmingly strong.

One story that Debbie told stands out for me; she teaches a self defence class in a girls’ school to a group of 13 year olds. Every year, some of her make volunteers come away with broken ribs.

*I’m blogging this live so I trust you’ll Google if you’re not familiar with the dreadful numbers.